Talking to children about the slave trade: “Alma”, the story of a novel

If the history of slavery has given rise to several recent works – think about Beloved by Toni Morrison or Twelve years a slave by Steve McQueen, adapted from Solomon Northup’s testimony – it remains a complex subject to deal with in children’s literature.

How can one actually introduce children and young people to the much-needed knowledge of a period in history known for its atrocities? How can we pull fictions out of it when we also have so few direct testimonies from slaves?

It was for this project that Timothée de Fombelle embarked on his trilogy Almaincluding the first two volumes, The wind picks up and Enchantwas published by Gallimard Jeunesse in 2020 and 2021. Timothée de Fombelle was born in 1973 and is the author of several successes for young people, especially adventure novels Tobie Lolness (2006-2007) and Vango (2010-2022). Alma draws on the history of the XVIIIand century a plot dealing with trade with black Africans, deported as slaves by Europeans to American territories.

“Alma. The wind is rising”, presented by Timothée de Fombelle (Librairie Mollat).

Invited to the University of Nanterre in the spring of 2022, as part of a series of meetings on the XVIII.and century in contemporary novels, Timothée de Fombelle came to present Almareveal his working method (his sources, the space he provides documentation …) and tell about the author’s authorship, which is confronted with such a topic.

His story crosses fates for many characters: prisoners and sailors, hunters and landowners, amid debates about abolition. It all started in 1786, in the Isaya Valley, somewhere in Africa. Alma spends happy days there with her family. When her brother is captured by slave hunters, the young girl is ready to do anything to find him, even if it means following him to the end of the world.

She will discover the terrible conditions at the crossing of the Atlantic, the eruption of Saint-Domingue – a colony that will soon be agitated by a violent uprising -, the injustices on the plantations in Louisiana and the suspended splendor of the Versailles court.

In the documentation yard

Writing about the Atlantic slave trade, even to compose a novel, presupposes that one performs some documentation work in advance. Not only out of historical fidelity, but because the extent of the suffering experienced commits the author to some degree to a demand for accuracy, where reality sometimes exceeds the imagination.

How does one actually represent the ridiculous space given to the prisoners in the ships? Alma, around the rich illustrations of François Place, takes care to carefully evoke the slave ships as the function of the plantations. It’s important to get young readers to understand this triangular trade, the way shipowners turn “invisible gold” into people, then into goods and then back into gold.

However, this knowledge, nurtured by the reading of numerous documents, should not become encyclopedic. It is by strictly romantic means that Timothée de Fombelle tells of these lives being thrown around on three continents. Alma amazed at the number of its characters, rare in a work for young people.

Meeting with Timothée de Fombelle (Paris-Nanterre University Library, 2022).

In addition to the eponymous heroine, we find Joseph Mars, a French ship boy, Amélie Bassac, daughter of the shipowner and owner of the plantation – she who “struggles to open her eyes to the atrocities of the dramas that live these men and these women ”-, Gardel, the infamous captain, or even Oumna, this famous captured Eve, whose memory we are trying to erase with the name …

This wealth of characters, which appears on the cover of the book, makes it possible to evoke all those who directly or indirectly participated in the slave trade and thus represent it in all its complexity.

An initial journey

Alma chooses an omniscient narrator who is able to comment on the imminent facts as well as interfere with each other’s thoughts. The exercise is not easy. How can we talk about slavery without speaking on behalf of those who went through it? Publisher Walter Brooks, who translates most of Timothée de Fombelle’s works, has decided not to publish. Alma English.

Dominated by a deliberately critical narrator, the novel provides access to the successive views of prisoners, more or less involved external spectators, sometimes slaves. Joseph Mars, the cabin boy for whom the prisoners crammed into the ship is described, repeats, “I know,” but “he knows he does not really know.” He has to watch the long march of Africans taken in the boat to become aware of this reality.

Young readers are invited to embark on the same inaugural journey in front of these exile parades as “the white edge of their continent” disappears in their eyes. Means, no doubt, to make these readers feel through fiction, from the end of their imagination, what slavery meant.

It is sometimes necessary to use sneaky means to represent the worst in a novel for young people. An old pirate tells how a ship full of prisoners was sunk for a purely administrative reason. The reported speech shows here without showing directly. In the same way, when the young slave Lam runs away, the possibility of failure – of the punishment that awaits him – is formulated in a deceptive form, in the form of a simple hypothesis: Lam will succeed in escaping and joining the reddish-brown rebels. ). The novel navigates in this way, conscious of the two pitfalls to outbid and dilute.

The wake of light

It’s quite a bit of XVIII’s historyand century showing Alma, but also of its literature. Behind the voice declaring, in The wind picks up : “All this misfortune for a little coffee, jam and chocolate for snack time … For this madness of sugar that has invaded Europe’s living rooms”, we hear the great abolition texts that continue to nourish the memory collective. “So much sugar is eaten in Europe,” said the mutilated slave Sincere of Voltaire.

Scene from Paul and Virginia, by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.
Charles-Melchior Descourtis, via Wikimedia

“It will be agreed that a barrel of sugar will not come to Europe that is not stained with human blood,” Helvétius wrote in his Spirit. We also find in Alma, as with Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, the contrast between the utopian micro-space of the happy valley and the great bad world, where the slave trade has free rein. We think we’ll see Domingue again, this character from Paul and Virginia depicted in the famous prints and paintings of the time.

Yes, there is an echo of the Enlightenment in Timothée de Fombelle’s novel, but also a question mark over the latter, in the wake of a historiographical current that insists on their ideological ambiguities. The owner of the slave ship has an impressive library, which does not prevent him from enriching himself with the slave trade. In Santo Domingo’s estate, which the heroine crosses, we find works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, bitten by rats – the same rats that the slaves reduced to eating them poison. Here again, Alma traces its path between partying and unequivocal criticism.

“It is forbidden to know what has not yet happened,” the narrator declares mischievously, before embarking on a well-known historical episode – the sinking of the La Pérouse expedition. Second volume ofAlma leaves us in 1788, at Versailles. The curious have an idea of ​​what awaits them, in volume 3, from 1789 …

Meanwhile, young (and less young) readers in two volumes will have discovered in all their complexity these “tangled lives” of the slave trade, in a powerful fairy-tale novel that focuses on a few crucial years of our history, and which aims to embody his memory.

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